Scapegoating and Firm Reputation

36 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2009 Last revised: 25 Oct 2009

See all articles by Cristian L. Dezso

Cristian L. Dezso

University of Maryland - R.H. Smith School of Business

Date Written: September 14, 2009


Firms typically fire senior executives in response to performance failures. Often, however, the expected performance improvements fail to materialize, suggesting that some of the fired executives are scapegoats. In this paper, I propose a rational, reputation-based theory of scapegoating, whereby firms differ in their ability to identify the incompetent executives that cause failure and the market imperfectly observes firms’ ability. I show that scapegoating, defined as random firing by a low-ability firm, is an optimal, reputation-saving, value-maximizing strategy if firms care sufficiently about short-term value, which depends on reputation, and if reputation is sufficiently high to be worth sacrificing a competent executive for. I then consider that failure is caused by exogenous factors rather than incompetence and show that even firms that are perfectly able to distinguish between these causes will scapegoat to leverage their reputation if the market is sufficiently convinced that failure is caused by incompetence.

Keywords: scapegoating, reputation, signalling, boards of directors, senior executives and firm performance

JEL Classification: D82, L14, M51

Suggested Citation

Dezso, Cristian L., Scapegoating and Firm Reputation (September 14, 2009). Robert H. Smith School Research Paper No. RHS 06-105, Available at SSRN: or

Cristian L. Dezso (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - R.H. Smith School of Business ( email )

Van Munching Hall
College Park, MD 20742
United States
301-405-7832 (Phone)


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